1998 was a great year for me. It was the year we moved to the States. It was also the year our parents were so riddled with guilt about us kids missing our friends back home that we pretty much had free reign over the TV remote. And so 1998 became the year of South Park and horror movies. Man, did we watch a lot of horror movies. This new Netflix & chill generation will never understand the pleasures of hitting up your nearest Blockbuster on a Friday night. It was magic. My teenage years in the US were some of the happiest years of my life. It was also the time I learned to love being scared shitless. I’m pretty sure some of my memories of these movies are inextricably linked to my hyped-up teenage hormones back then – everything was awesome! And so some of the below movies probably aren’t objectively good, but whether it’s nostalgia or something else, for one reason or another, I always go back to them.
1. The Shining (1980)
No horror movie best-of is complete without this Stanley Kubrick classic. The Shining, based on a Stephen King novel, just smashes it across the board: starting with its cast - Jack Nicholson, what a legend! - right through to its tight script (history of cinema has proven time and time again that turning King’s ideas into a movie worth watching is no small feat). More importantly, it’s just damn scary without relying on any of that torture porn crap that has dragged the genre’s name through the mud recently.
2. Misery (1990)
Another Stephen King adaptation, Misery really left an impression on 15-year old me at the time. After famous novelist Paul Sheldon swerves off an icy road in a blizzard, he’s rescued by nurse – and number one fan girl - Annie Wilkes (played by the incredible Kathy Bates) who takes him back to her house in order to nurse her idol back to health. As it soon turns out, Annie’s not quite as mentally stable as a patient teetering on the edge of consciousness would hope for. Bates for the Academy Award for her performance in 1990, making Misery the only Stephen King adaptation to win one of these bad boys.
3. The Ring (2002)
Next on the list is The Ring, a movie that blazed the trail for a whole host of American remakes of Japanese horror flicks. My friends and I used to buy tickets for whatever PG-13 movie was playing at the time so we could sneak into our Rated R picture of choice (we were such rebels). The fact that we could legally buy tickets for The Ring struck us as a little strange, and so our teenage expectations were pretty low (“PG-13? This must suck, dude!”). Boy, were we wrong. I’m not sure if one of us actually peed our pants, but it wouldn’t surprise me. We left the movie theater in what I’d now describe as a state of catatonic shock, and when I called my friend later that night and whispered “Seven days!” into the receiver, she didn’t talk to me for a month. True story. I recently re-watched this little gem, and it’s still as good as it was back then. What really struck me this time around, 14 years later, is how beautiful the camerawork and cinematography is. Ignore the god awful sequel and revisit this one, you’ll dig it.
4. The Evil Dead (1981)
With Ash vs. Evil Dead making waves on Starz right now (for good reason), I thought no better time than the present to go back and watch the original Sam Raimi produced Zombie badassery that started it all. The perfect mix of camp, horror and dark comedy, this low-budget 80’s passion project has since amassed one of the biggest cult followings of all time. It also launched Raimi’s and Bruce Campbell’s careers and spawned several sequels, including the somber and gory-as-hell 2013 remake Evil Dead (which apparently shattered the world record for fake blood used on set – 50,000 gallons to be precise). While I don’t mind blood and guts, what really sold the original for me was the perfect symbiosis between laughs and screams. Groovy!
5. Drag Me to Hell (2009)
When Drag Me to Hell hit cinemas, it was rumored that Raimi, who wrote and directed this puppy, and his team had asked theaters across the globe to crank up the volume for the movie’s many jump scares. I’m not sure this turned out to be true, but it definitely felt like it at the time. I seem to have a penchant for horror comedies, and Drag Me to Hell is the king of ‘em all. When loans officer Christine Brown rejects an elderly woman’s plea for an extension on her mortgage, she soon after finds herself haunted by evil forces. What follows is genre-bending 90 minutes of crazy, scary fun. The demon’s attacks are brutal, and Raimi impeccably balances campy gore and real scares – think bug-ridden vomit, cartoonish nose bleeds, gallons of slime and eye balls. The audience at the time was laughing, screaming and cheering all at the same time. Probably the most fun I’ve had at the movies, ever.
6. The Cell (2000)
I know I’m probably in the minority here, but to me this is one of the most underrated horror films of all time. So why the underwhelming response at the time? Maybe it was the fact that, even though Jennifer Lopez was at the pinnacle of her career at the time, she just wasn’t seen as a respected actor (though she does solid work here), or maybe it’s because The Cell is a clear example of style over substance. The lukewarm reception notwithstanding, The Cell holds a special place in my heart and my now-dusty DVD collection. J.Lo plays social worker Catherine Dean who – and I’ll spare you the how and why – is asked by the FBI to enter the mind of a serial killer who’s refusing to give up the location of his latest kidnapee. The story’s pretty tenuous, but the breathtaking visuals, borrowing from Hirst, Giger et al. more than make up for it. Director Tarsem Singh (who also directed the beautiful but anodyne The Fall) is a visual genius. The Cell is hands down the most beautiful horror movie I’ve seen to date.
7. The Invitation (2015)
Last year’s The Invitation wasn’t just a box office success, it also received critical acclaim, and it’s currently sitting on an 88% approval rating on Rottentomatoes. Two years after a tragic accident resulted in the separation of Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his ex-wife Eden (the excellent Tammy Blanchard), Will and his new girlfriend, played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, are on their way to a dinner party thrown by Eden and her new squeeze. Will’s trepidation is palpable and understandable, as he’s neither seen Eden nor his old group of friends – also invited – since the accident. As the night progresses, things get increasingly weird. Or is it all in Will’s head? The tension builds and builds and, ultimately, as is expected of such genre fair, it all culminates in one hell of a denouement. So do yourself a favour and RSVP ‘Yes’.
8. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
One, two, Freddy’s coming for you… Did I mention I love me some campy horror? And what could be campier than a hipster-looking, fedora wearing burn victim with badass looking knife claws who says stuff like, “How’s this for a wet dream?” as part of a waterbed fatality scenario? One-liner heaven! Freddy’s probably the most iconic horror movie villain of all time, and it’s easy to see why. The setup is simple yet clever, the kills are original, and each sequel adds another layer to the Nightmare legacy. With six sequels, culminating in the pretty avant-garde Wes Craven’s Nightmare, and a spin off (the stupidly fun Freddy vs Jason), I’m envious of anyone who hasn’t delved into the franchise yet – you’re in for a hell of a time. Make sure to steer clear of the humdrum 2010 remake though, that one blew.
9. 28 Days Later (2000)
If The Evil Dead is tongue-in-cheek, 28 Days Later (and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later) is its depressed and angry counterpart. 28 Days Later takes no prisoners. Its vision is brutal and unflinching and often bleak – but man, is it effective. I’m a huge Danny Boyle fan, the man can do no wrong in my eyes. And with this little film, he singlehandedly resuscitated the genre. Long gone are the days of slow-walking, comatose zombies. These bastards mean business, they’ll outrun you and they’ll gauge your eyes out. They’ll kill you in all sorts of ways, while the bass-heavy soundtrack does the rest. Thanks to its frenetic editing, superb cast and its unblinking script, 28 Days Later will stay with you days after the credits start to roll.
10. Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Leave it to Joss Whedon (the mastermind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, The Avengers) to turn the haunted cabin in the woods genre on its head. I've loved Whedon's quippy style ever since he introduced the world to a certain Buffy Summers nearly two decades ago. In his hands, no horror trope remains unturned. When asked about the inception of Buffy, Whedon joked that he had seen one too many movies about blonde damsels in distress, running from whatever lurks in the shadows. And so he made the damsel fight back. Cabin in the Woods follows a similar pattern. When a bunch of hot twenty-somethings decide to enjoy a relaxing weekend in an isolated cabin in the woods, we think we know how the story ends - until we don't. Cabin pulls the rug out from under its viewers, going mega-meta in the process. Things soon take a turn for the crazy, but Whedon stays true to his self-aware style. The outcome is unlike any other horror movie out there.
Honorable mentions: The Exorcist, Scream, The Strangers, The Babadook, Dead Alive (aka Braindead), Switchblade Romance (aka High Tension), Rosemary’s Baby, It Follows, Green Room, The Descent, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
Photo: New Line Cinema